Birding Tools

Woman with Binoculars

You need only two basic tools to enjoy birding:

  • Binoculars
  • Bird identification field guide

Binoculars and Field Guide: Getting Started


Binoculars come in a variety of brands, magnifications, and prices. These guidelines can help you get started in finding which types work best for you. 

Choose binoculars that have a right eyepiece that can be adjusted for individual eye differences and that also have central focusing to adjust for various distances.


Many birders prefer a magnification of 8x42 or 10x42. The first number describes the magnification, while the second number describes the size of the objective lens (the lens at the end of the binoculars farthest from your eyes when holding the binoculars to your face). Size 42 objective lenses capture more light and work better in low light situations. 


Binoculars range in price from $25 to $1000 or more, depending on brand and quality. Cheap binoculars can easily cause eyestrain. This annoyance can quickly zap all birding excitement. 

Mid-quality binoculars with a fault-free lifetime warranty will typically run you $200–$300. This may seem pricey, but binoculars are a good investment if you plan to keep birding or if you enjoy watching other wildlife. 


A trusty bird field guide is a must. Some birders prefer field guides with photographs; others like illustrations. Our online field guide is a good place to start identifying birds you see in Missouri. 


If you don’t want to invest in multiple books, check out a few field guides from your local library and see which works best for you. 

We recommend field guides that cover a wide geographic range, like the eastern United States or all of North America. Guides with only the “most common” or “backyard” birds rarely help you identify birds outside of your backyard and do not account for many migrant birds that pass through on their way north or south.

The three field guides listed below have color illustrations, show range maps for all species, and contain a birder's checklist in the back. They are standards in the field and are available at most bookstores.

  • The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley. This book covers all birds of North America. Sibley also has guides for species of just the eastern U.S. or western U.S.
  • Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, written and illustrated by Roger Tory Peterson. The original eastern edition (revised numerous times and still available) covers all birds east of the Rocky Mountains and north of Mexico.
  • National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer.

Birding Apps

If you prefer to travel light and enjoy technology, you can download a bird identification application, or app, for your mobile device. Apps are updated more regularly than books. Apps also include bird songs and call notes — something you won’t find in a book. 

A few bird identification apps are free. These include Merlin Bird ID by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon app, but most high-quality apps cost a fee so creators can be competitive with book guides. Most of these apps have a one-time fee of less than $10. 


Optional Tools


Spotting scopes offer higher levels of magnification than binoculars. Because of cost, people generally buy scopes when birding becomes one of their main hobbies. 

  • Most scopes magnify an object 20 to 60 times.
  • Lenses can be purchased separately and are interchangeable.
  • Zoom lenses are available.

Spotting scopes are most practical for identifying birds across open areas of marshland, mud flats, and lakes. 

Disadvantages: Due to their narrow fields of view and high-power magnification, scopes must be mounted on sturdy tripods to avoid shaky images. They are also quite heavy to carry long distances. 


Learning bird songs will expand your ability to tell one species from another. Often birds remain hidden and sound is the only way to identify them. Song differences are also the best way to identify certain look-alike species, such as alder and willow flycatchers. 

You can find bird song recordings: 

  • As downloadable recordings online.
  • In bird identification apps.
  • On CDs for purchase (or borrow from your public library). 

Recordings should not be used to attract birds. Song recordings can stress nesting birds because it will sound like another bird is invading their territory.

Additional Resources